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Protesters prompted change, created controversy as they marched in Omaha
A look back at protests over the past year

Protesters prompted change, created controversy as they marched in Omaha

A year ago, the grief and anger felt nationwide following the killing of George Floyd spilled into one of Omaha’s busiest intersections.

An estimated 2,000 people crowded around all four corners of 72nd and Dodge on May 29, 2020, on behalf of the 46-year-old Black man whose final moments resonated far beyond the Minneapolis sidewalk where he was murdered by a White police officer.

What began as a peaceful, sunny Friday afternoon in Omaha ended with tear gas and rubber bullets as protesters clashed with law enforcement officers in a night of civil upheaval .

That night was a prologue to a fatal encounter in downtown Omaha the next night and a series of protests that stretched well into the summer.

What followed was more than 40 protests and rallies over the summer and fall. The arrests of 125 protesters last July prompted an ALCU-backed lawsuit that led to policy changes in policing. Last month, a controversial demonstration involving severed pig heads left at the police union headquarters drew widespread condemnation from officials and community members.

These activists took a high-profile role in Omaha’s struggle to come to terms with racial inequality and policing. Either by choice or by circumstance, the events of the past year shaped how these activists pursue change.

Shortly after the events of May 30, when James Scurlock, a 22-year-old Black man, was killed in downtown Omaha in a confrontation with Jake Gardner, a White bar owner, a group of young Omahans began organizing. Among them was Bear Alexander, a freelance videographer who had little experience protesting.

In mid-June, Alexander and several others formed the group ProBLAC (Progressive Black-Led Ally Coalition). At its peak, the organization had as many as 75 members.

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Bear Alexander helped form the group ProBLAC in June 2020. "I wouldn’t be who I am right now without ProBLAC, without George Floyd, without James Scurlock," he said. "My goals and aspirations that I have now in my mind came to be within this past year."

ProBLAC organized several protests as a grand jury met to consider charges against Gardner, and, months later, around the death of Kenneth Jones, a Black man who was shot and killed in November by an Omaha police officer during a traffic stop.

For much of the past year, the 24-year-old Alexander could be seen, megaphone in hand, leading those protests in chants and marches.

Alexander said last summer’s protests and ProBLAC were instrumental in shaping who he is today.

“I wouldn’t be who I am right now without ProBLAC, without George Floyd, without James Scurlock,” Alexander said. “My goals and aspirations that I have now in my mind came to be within this past year.”

Kiara Williams wasn’t in Omaha on the evening of May 29, 2020. She was at her home in Lincoln, creating the organization Change Now LNK.

Described by Williams as a “solutions-focused public policy organization,” Change Now LNK hosted multiple events throughout the summer and fall, including community workshops on public policy and inclusion, sit-ins on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and a community cleanup.

Williams’ first protest in Omaha came in late August when she attended a ProBLAC protest at 12th and Howard Streets.

The 20-year-old gradually became more involved in the Omaha organization and says her eventual involvement in a group called the Revolutionary Action Party was a significant factor in her decision to move to Omaha.

Bri Full first got involved in last year’s protests when she raised money and handed out supplies at 72nd and Dodge during the initial night of protests on May 29.

Handing out water and, later, special solution for tear gas, Full watched as tensions between law enforcement officers and protesters escalated.

“I wasn’t really expecting any of the things that happened to happen,” Full said. “I got tear-gassed. I have a fear of loud noises now.”

The experience led Full to conclude that with the momentum of the protests sweeping across the country, more could be done to address racial inequality in Omaha.

“I felt like I could make a difference,” Full said. “That I have the leadership skills, the connections in the community to make something happen, and I just wanted to do that.”

The 25-year-old is a University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate student working toward a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in public policy.

Last summer, Full began the organization BlackOut Omaha with the goal of connecting community members to needed resources such as legal aid, mental health services and economic support for Black-owned businesses.

The group’s inaugural event last August was postponed because of COVID-19 concerns and limited venue space.

“We have plans to restart this summer,” Full said.

Full also has plans to call for a police oversight board on UNO’s campus in collaboration with student regent Maeve Hemmer.

The two plan to hold a community forum on the topic sometime next fall.

“Hopefully, we can do it to help support the UNO students, staff and faculty,” Full said. “Making resources available and having oversight of the police is something Maeve really wanted to do, and I think it’s also an important policy to have.”

Preston Love Jr. has a unique perspective on the protests of the past year that comes from his lived experience as a member of the civil rights generation.

The 78-year-old runs the Black Votes Matter Institute of Community Engagement, a nonprofit that aims to educate and mobilize voters. He takes Omaha youths on an annual bus tour of historic civil rights stops in the American South. And he teaches a class on the African American experience in politics at UNO.

Love said he felt that last year’s local protests often lacked clear objectives.

“For example, I remember our demonstration for the right to vote in the ‘60s,” Love said. “There was a clear objective and solution.”

He said that while the protesters “may be righteous in their focus on the cause,” they needed a “clear definition of what we want out of it, and the solution.”

“On the national level, there have been articulations of things, but when you demonstrate in Omaha, you should demonstrate for Omaha’s solution,” Love said.

Many involved in the protests and rallies consider Saturday, May 30, the night that kicked off the summer’s unrest. That evening, the crowd at 72nd and Dodge grew to an estimated 4,000 people. Again, as the sun began to set, skirmish lines formed, and police declared the gathering illegal after protesters threw bottles at officers.

Police tried to clear the area in a torrent of tear gas and pepper balls. Protesters eventually disbanded and headed east into downtown Omaha and a more chaotic scene.

Security alarms rang out as people vandalized businesses in the Old Market. Sirens and a police helicopter could be heard as officers tried to gain control of a situation that was much more spread out and volatile than before.

Soon after the downtown street battles began, the sound of gunshots and wailing could be heard over flash bangs and fireworks.

Disoriented bystanders watched as Scurlock was wheeled to an ambulance on a gurney.

Scurlock had been shot by Gardner during a deadly confrontation in front of Gardner’s downtown businesses.

In the following days, Mayor Jean Stothert enacted a citywide curfew and thousands again clashed with local law enforcement and National Guard officers on Omaha streets.

For three and a half months after the deadly confrontation, the city anxiously waited as a grand jury was formed to determine whether to indict Gardner in Scurlock’s death.

The grand jury’s decision came Sept. 15 when Fred Franklin, the special prosecutor in the case, announced that Gardner would be charged with manslaughter as well as attempted first-degree assault, terroristic threats and use of a weapon to commit a felony.

An arraignment would never come.

On Sept. 20, while awaiting arrest in Oregon, Gardner took his own life.

Today, the space that once housed Gardner’s bar and nightclub at 1207 Harney St. sits empty, a dark storefront. A makeshift memorial to Scurlock of flowers, signs and candles that sat for months against a neighboring building were removed over the winter.

***

Full’s motivation for community activism was sparked in large part by a mass arrest of protesters on July 25, an event many consider a significant flashpoint of the summer.

That night, police arrested 125 protesters on the Farnam Street bridge near downtown Omaha. The protesters, who didn’t have a permit to gather, walked downtown sidewalks and streets and were almost back to Turner Park when Omaha police stopped them on the bridge.

Most of them spent at least 12 hours at the Douglas County Jail, which was overwhelmed by the size of the group and by a computer malfunction in the jail’s booking system. In the end, City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse ticketed 25 of the 125 on suspicion of obstructing a public roadway.

The incident led to a lawsuit initiated by the ACLU of Nebraska against the City of Omaha.

As part of the eventual settlement, the city dismissed misdemeanor cases against 25 protesters. And under the settlement the City Council was asked to revise a city ordinance barring the blocking of public roadways to allow protesters reasonable notice and time to disperse.

Among other changes, Omaha police also will use pepper balls or spray only on those whom they have probable cause to think are committing crimes at protests, and will loudly and clearly announce any imminent deployment of any chemical agent, according to the settlement.

In return for those policy changes, several protesters and members of ProBLAC agreed to dismiss the federal lawsuit they filed alleging the city violated their rights.

Alexander was arrested that night. His charges were later dropped.

Full had left 20 minutes before police began arresting the protesters on the Farnam Street bridge.

After the events of last summer, internal conflict over the group’s direction led a handful of ProBLAC members to break away to create the Revolutionary Action Party.

Recently, Alexander and other Revolutionary Action Party members sparked controversy with a demonstration targeting the Omaha Police Union, specifically union president Anthony Conner.

Seven people, including Alexander and Williams, were arrested May 22 during the protest outside the Omaha police union hall that included leaving three pig heads in costume police caps on the grounds.

Alexander was arrested on suspicion of obstructing a police officer, disorderly conduct, trespassing, inciting a riot and failure to disperse. Williams was arrested on suspicion of trespassing, failure to disperse and disorderly conduct.

The arrests occurred after a gathering organized by the Revolutionary Action Party in Montclair Park, 2304 S. 135th St.

Speakers at the gathering, which was described by Alexander as a “pig roast,” condemned the police union and its president, Conner, for distributing a flyer just before the May election targeting independent City Council candidate Cammy Watkins. Watkins ultimately lost to Danny Begley, a candidate backed by the police union who disavowed knowledge of the flyers.

The protest was condemned by U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, Mayor Jean Stothert and Conner himself, who posted photos of the pig heads on his Facebook page.

“What part of this is okay? Pay attention to those that are denouncing this act and those that are silent,” wrote Conner, who is Black.

Conner, in a recent Public Pulse letter, also wrote that it is “dangerously inappropriate for those who disagree with the political speech of the OPOA to criminally trespass on private property with severed pig heads and messages of harm to our members.”

Alexander referred to the demonstration as a “theatrical performance that directly delineates our infuriation with white supremacy and the systems that hold it up,” and said the display does not mean the group intends to “burn the city down” or harm police.

“My whole life I’ve witnessed countless Black and brown bodies mercilessly executed, and not one person has asked me if I take that as a threat as a Black man,” Alexander said. “But as soon as we bring out some chopped-off pig heads and put officer hats on them, that implicates as a threat?”

Williams defended the protest and said the reaction has only served to increase awareness of the Revolutionary Action Party.

“I think that, overall, our name has been spread through the community, and the people that need to see us have seen us,” Williams said. “All of the elected officials and like individuals also now see that we as RAP will hold them accountable.”

Despite the controversial demonstration, Alexander said he is focusing more on community outreach and less on organizing protests.

“We’re going to be more selective with our protests, and that will resonate with the community,” Alexander said. “ProBLAC was to establish a culture of resilience and resistance in the community, but how we were doing that was just organizing around Black deaths instead of moving to prevent Black deaths. We realized that we need to organize, to educate, to reveal oppression, create this mass movement to serve our community.”

Made up of Black and brown activists, the Revolutionary Action Party runs a food, clothing and canvassing program and is based near 24th and Emmet Streets in North Omaha.

A transition from protester to activist is not uncommon, said Nikitah Imani, a professor of Black studies at UNO.

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"It may feel really good to stand on a street corner and wave a sign," said Dr. Nikitah Imani, a professor of Black studies at UNO. But moving away from reactionary action and into activism "gives a chance to make an actual impact on those issues."

Imani noted that “it may feel really good to stand on a street corner and wave a sign,” but moving away from reactionary action and into activism “gives a chance to make an actual impact on those issues.”

As for what led to the events of the summer, Imani thinks that Scurlock’s death, while it added local depth to an international issue, was not the sole cause.

“My sense is that it just added to it,” Imani said. “If you look at it nationwide, this was going on across the country in areas that didn’t have incidents, and not just in this country. I counted 16 to 17 countries where there was a tremendous wave of protests.”

In addition to her involvement with ProBLAC and the Revolutionary Action Party, a new job factored into Williams’ move to Omaha. She recently began a position at the Omaha Early Learning Center at Skinner Elementary as an associate teacher.

“The school I’m located at is in North Omaha, so I work with the population that I’m trying to serve outside of my job,” Williams said of her activism.

Williams said she feels good about what came from last year’s protests.

“We got all of these young leaders, we got all of these different organizations that were created and people who were really willing to put in this work continuously and really dedicate their lives to this movement and creating change,” she said.

Looking ahead, Williams has plans to expand Change Now LNK to encompass both Lincoln and Omaha.

“My goals are to keep uplifting the community and spreading knowledge,” she said, “because that’s how change is going to happen.”

Reflecting on the past year, Full said she hopes the protests prompted Omahans to reevaluate the “status quo” in their city.

“We can look at policy, all the rules that we want, but it’s really people’s hearts and minds that we have to change to create meaningful change in our community,” Full said. “I think the biggest thing the protests were able to do was shine a light on the injustice that was happening and help to understand all of the issues and challenges that we face.”

Looking to the future, she plans to continue her work with BlackOut Omaha while working toward her master’s degree.

“Every form of change is important in the community and everyone has the ability to make change,” Full said.

Love said he would like to see more intergenerational communication from young protesters and activists.

“Their energy, ideas, activism. Our wisdom, counsel and experience. Merge those, and we have it.”

Love said he took pride in the magnitude of the response following the deaths of Floyd and Scurlock.

As he stood in Memorial Park on June 7 and took in the more than 2,000 people who came out for a solidarity march and rally, Love focused on the power of the moment and wondered whether that momentum would continue.

“What’s going on in my mind is I hope that we’re not dissipating all this power, all this response. It gets lost,” Love said last month. “Like a small hole in the bottom of a glass. It might spread out and lose its effectiveness. My mind went to the hope that we’re harnessing that and turning that into meaningful action.”

Love has his own lifetime of experience in harnessing meaningful action, and, as he puts it, he’s “learned these lessons from the masters,” who include civil rights activists John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. and his family.

The lesson: If you bring people together to protest, Love said, “You must inspire them, give them information, then give them instruction. If you do, that the glass stays full.”

jwade@owh.com, 402-444-1067

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Jessica Wade covers breaking news, crime and the Omaha zoo. Follow her on Twitter @Jess_Wade_OWH. Phone: 402-444-1067

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